Goodbye, Larry

10 Mar

My first conversation with Larry Prescott took place on February 5, 2001, just four days after I took over as editor of P&T. I don’t remember much about the discussion, and the yellow sticky note summarizing our phone call was brief and matter-of-fact—probably much like the conversation itself. My chicken scratch says: “Amer Coll Cardiol, Amer Gastroenterol Assn—small mtg in Oct. Neurology—same time as Oncology.”

Seeing this, six years later, made me smile, because it was a reminder that Larry was frequently conflicted about which meeting to attend—he wanted to be at all of them. And it wasn’t just for the money, because he sure wasn’t getting rich writing for us. No, he genuinely enjoyed hearing all the latest scientific and medical developments.
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The next phone call that I recorded in my notes took place on July 8, 2002. The chicken-scratch transcript reads as follows:

“Doing two local mtgs in San Diego: pain and antibiotics. LP broke his hip on a recent flight, so no long distance travel. Was an infectious-disease specialist w/ WHO then jrnlst writing for us since 1988. Used to work w/ Watson of Watson & Crick fame—interested in gene/geno-mics rsrch.”

Larry was starting to get chatty with me after nearly a year and a half of working together, and I was pleased to be able to get a glimpse of his fascinating background at the World Health Organization.

We met in the fall of 2004 at the Society for Neuroscience (SFN) meeting in San Diego. Larry was officially covering the meeting for P&T; I was there to talk to authors about the recent scientific developments and possibly to supplement Larry’s article with some material for our New Drugs/Drug News column. SFN is well known for making complex medical information accessible to writers and reporters via voluminous bound packets of lay-language summaries and for organizing a full schedule of press conferences. Larry didn’t need the dumbed-down version; rather, he was a meticulous note-taker who liked to have the complete picture before writing up his reports. I sat down in one of the folding chairs that had been set up in the press room of the convention center, and lo and behold, there was Larry, along with his wife Sharon, in the row of seats in front of me. We shook hands and compared notes about the conference and sunny San Diego.

The rest of my inch-thick file on Larry consists mainly of schedules that he sent me with tentative itineraries for the coming year, along with assignment letters that I wrote for him, authorizing him to cover this meeting or that for P&T. Mostly it’s good bedtime reading for insomniacs, but there is one piece of correspondence that, in my mind at least, conveys a hint of Larry’s personality, dedication, and perhaps even a sense of foreboding. It reads as follows:

I’m writing to let you know that, because of a personal emergency, Sharon and I will be unable to attend the upcoming ICAAC meeting. I’m truly very sorry about this, particularly since I always try to carry out my assignments. In 18 years of writing for P&T, I have never missed a single commitment.
If you can’t get someone else at this late date, I do have all of the ICAAC abstracts and press releases, which were Fed-Exed to me from ASM headquarters, as well as a number of pharmaceutical companies’ press releases off the Web. In addition, as is my usual approach to each meeting, I already have spoken to a number of the presenters prior to the meeting to get a jump on what I think are the best stories. If you like, even though I have never prepared a column without attending a meeting, I would be glad to put together seven or eight notes from the ICAAC presentations.

I realize the importance of this meeting, and while I can’t leave San Diego at this time, I don’t want you to be left completely in the lurch. Please let me know if I may help you.

Sincerely, Larry Prescott

This, in my mind, is quintessential, gentle little Larry with the raspy voice and the big heart. His report of the ICAAC meeting appears in the November 2006 issue.

My last note to Larry was on March 22, 2007, with a routine scheduling question. Once again, a choice had to be made about which of two meetings he would attend. Within a couple of hours, a message came back to me from his wife, Sharon, who informed me that Larry had died the day before. It was a shock to me, even though everybody knew he had been sick for many years, and it was an even bigger shock to his longtime friend and fellow writer, Walter Alexander. Walter clued me in to the fact that even though Larry was generally very gentle, he was also tough when he needed to be.

I called Walter as soon as I heard the news, and he then relayed the story of how Larry had helped him out of a difficult situation when Walter first got into the business of freelance writing:

It was in the early 1990s, and Walter took it upon himself to send an advance copy of one of his articles to the public relations account executive with whom he had had some discussions. It happened that Walter’s story contained, in the first paragraph, some unfavorable information about a drug that was manufactured by a pharmaceutical company that was represented by the PR agency that Walter had been dealing with. The PR executive hit the roof and threatened that if the story were to be published in its then-current form, Walter would never be able to work with the agency or the drug company again. Walter turned to Larry for advice.

Larry pointed out that there were many medical publications that would accept Walter’s article as it was, i.e., factually correct, and politely suggested that Walter would be within his rights to tell the PR agency where to go.
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The story was subsequently published with only minor modifications, and both Walter and Larry went on to achieve great admiration from their peers for their honesty and integrity.

So long, Larry—and thanks for 18 great years. We’ll miss you.